Westminster Council tries to tear more holes in the homelessness safety net

“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”

That was ever the case in politics.  And judging from Westminster City Council’s submission to the Communities & Local Government Select Committee’s inquiry now it seems it applies to homelessness policy too.

In that submission is not only does WCC make the request that “local authorities can address homelessness through the offer of a private rented property in areas that are affordable to low income households with fear of legal challenge” that might be expected following the Supreme Court’s judgment last year, but something even more worrying.

For its other main recommendation is that “the local authority housing duty is not fixed indefinitely but reviewable and contingent on a requirement for applicants to engage with services and support”.  This seemingly innocuous request will rightly set alarm bells ringing amongst many of those working with homeless people, especially those challenging WCC’s decision-making in homelessness applications and the conditions it applies to Discretionary Housing Payment awards.

The UK’s legal safety net for homeless people ranks right up there with some of the great achievements of Post War politics.  But while some might imagine it as the inevitable outcome of Jeremy Sandford and Ken Loach’s ground-breaking Cathy Come Home, those involved at the time will tell you it was a long hard struggle to get the law onto the Statute Book.  Stephen Ross’ Private Members Bill enjoyed support from across the political spectrum.  But it had fierce opponents too, particularly influential parts of local government.

Even before it came into effect, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, was being criticised for letting loose all manner of social ills, and Margaret Thatcher’s incoming Government agreed to review it.  However, despite pressure from the hard right, Environment Secretary, Michael Heseltine, came down against any changes.  A further review commissioned in the late 1980s when Nicholas Ridley was Environment Secretary might have come to a different conclusion, but he moved on before it concluded and his successor, Chris Patten, endorsed Heseltine’s earlier decision.

But the hard-right was not to be denied.  And following Peter Lilley’s notorious scapegoating of single parents “jumping council housing waiting lists” at the 1992 Tory Party Conference, John Major’s Government published a Green Paper, proposing a radical watering-down of the legal duties to homeless people on local authorities.  The response was instantaneous.  In little more than a month around 10,000 people responded to the consultation, nearly all of whom objected to the Government’s plans – an incredible turnout in the days before 38 Degrees and Change.org!

In the face of this public outcry, minsters paused for breath.  And under the more humane stewardship of John Gummer and George Young, there was a change of tone.  But the White Paper and legislation that was eventually brought forward still tore holes in the legal safety net, particularly through removal of the duty for local authorities to provide permanent, secure accommodation for homeless people.  Instead, as originally put forward the Housing Act 1996 only guaranteed a homeless family 12 months in temporary accommodation (TA).  Sound familiar?!

Led by Sheila McKechnie and Chris Holmes, in what is still probably its finest hour, Shelter mobilised civic society in a campaign to defend the 1977 Act, culminating in a packed rally in Westminster Central Hall.  Under intense political pressure, the Government was forced into concessions.  (The final version of the Act itself allowed councils to end the main homelessness duty after providing TA for two years.)  The campaign also ensured Her Majesty’s Opposition nailed its colours to the mast, and in 1997, Labour made a manifesto commitment to restore the safety net.

Of course, the Localism Act 2011 has already torn new holes in the legal safety net.  But Westminster’s proposals will make those holes far bigger.  It would be really worrying if ministers were thinking along similar lines.  Many of those who fought the campaign against these changes back in the 1990s are no longer with us.  Fortunately, one of the few who is still around is the Chair of the select committee himself – Clive Betts MP.  As I said in my last Blog, there are many other aspects of homelessness policy and practice we want the committee to scrutinise.  But we really do hope it will reject WCC’s recommendation.

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